Monday, March 16, 2015

The Highs and Lows of Travel in Cameroon

Or, To Kribi and Back Again

While in the second of two five-hour buses required to travel from Bansoa, West Cameroon to Kribi, South Cameroon (not counting the taxis to Bafoussam, across Bafoussam, or across Yaoundé), I was pondering the joys of traveling. In my mind, I attempted to grade the delightful qualities of these public transportation mini-buses, commonly called "coasters." But even three hours into the trip I had not decided on a ranking because that implies that some characteristics are better or worse than others, and yet they are all so excellent! Here are a few examples, in no particular order of course.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

February is for Parties and Death

It's one of those mid-February days, when the rainy season isn't supposed to start for another month but the afternoons are already starting to become gray and threatening and windy. When everyone is rushing to fit in their wedding or wake or burial or funeral or other big event. When I simply cannot get any work done over the weekends because I'm busy attending all said events (and don't think I'm complaining, because I'd definitely rather be out with my friends). Two things seem omnipresent by the end of dry season: parties and death. 

Friends, family, food, drank.
Before I came to Cameroon, one of my many worries was how I would deal with death. I had this idea that people die every day in Africa and that it would be really emotionally draining. And in some ways that is true, but in some ways it's an exaggeration, and death is merely a part of the circle of life. 

So in these days when everyone holds their breath and watches the sky for rain, we also spend a lot of time mourning death and celebrating life. What better time than the end of dry season, when the majority of the plant life is dying of thirst but we know that the rain will soon come to make everything fertile again? 

Death rites are so interesting here in the Bamileke area of Cameroon, and I suspect more healthy than our own American system. When someone dies - old or young - the family holds the wake immediately. For one or several days, all the bereaved person's friends come over to cry with them. Whenever someone new arrives, they immediately go to greet the bereaved, who melts into tears. Women begin to shuffle dance in a circle around the drums, if the family has drums, or just in a circle if they don't. Men stand in a line, shoulder to shoulder on the side; they sing along but do not dance. And the song almost defies description: it has words but I could not tell you what they are; it has a tune but it's easier to follow the less you think about it. It's almost a song composed of suppressed moans of pain, perfectly in tune with muffled sobs, somehow expressing both sorrow and solidarity. The bereaved puts her hand on each of her friends shoulders, one by one; they return the gesture, saying "We are together" without need for words. Women shave their heads and wear all black. Everyone cries. 

Shortly thereafter is the burial. The dancing and crying is repeated, though the pain is clearly less raw, with the added component of a Christian service (in both French and Bansoa) for those who are religious. If it is a woman who died, all of her sons wear her clothes (yes, kaabas and dresses included); if it is a man who died, his widow and daughter wear his clothes. This is just another way of carrying the deceased with them, of remember him or her. The men dig a hole to bury the woman's body in front of her kitchen. There is more playing of drums, mournful singing, and dancing in circles. 

The drums.
Up to several years later is the funeral, and this involves no mourning at all. It is a huge celebration with all the friends and extended families (and with the giant polygamous families so common here, that can mean an entire village or two). Everyone stuffs themselves with food, drinks all the beer they can hold (unless the entire village has already run out of beer), and dances in more circles. The songs are no longer sad; the polyrhythmic bursts issuing from the drums faster and louder. The closest family members all wear matching new pagne clothes. Dry season is also funeral season, and it draws people back to their home villages from Douala or Yaoundé or Germany or wherever else they have landed as they grew up, to complain of the dust and backwardness of their place of birth. Despite all the complaining, they are happy to be home for a party, to see all their friends and family in a joyful reunion. 
Dancing in a circle at a funeral - with beers.
Each of those red boxes is called a "casier"
Each has twelve Cameroonian-sized beers,
Which equals two American-sized beers.
Then the money is finished and everyone goes home or waits, watching the sky, for rainy season to begin so they can start selling their fields' produce again. 
I <3 crazy hats. 

More crazy hats.
Also, that goat doesn't stand a chance...